The Paradox of Yeltsin's Russia

By Starr, S. Frederick | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Paradox of Yeltsin's Russia


Starr, S. Frederick, The Wilson Quarterly


Recent events in Russia raise fears that authoritarianism is making a comeback. Our author finds that the danger is not an overly powerful state but an enfeebled one.

Russia today may be a new federation of 21 republics and 49 oblasts regions), but it is still the legal successor to the Soviet Union, the most powerful and centralized state in history. While the passing of the communist regime has been widely celebrated, many observers fear that Russia's new leaders are resorting to the old top-down methods to prove that their state is just as much a great power as its predecessor.

The Russian army's blast-and-burn assault on Grozny, Boris Yeltsin's power under the 1993 constitution to brush aside even popular opposition groups, the aggressive response of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and police to the country's crime wave, Foreign Minister Andrei Kosyrev's ominous warnings about Russia's rights and its readiness to use armed force in the so-called near abroad--all of these have reminded the rest of the world that the Russian state can be a mighty but blunt weapon.

Russia, in fact, appears to be bucking a global trend. In an era of devolution,

J. Michael Bishop, is a University Professor of microbiology, immunology, biochemistry, and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. He also is director of the G. W. Hooper Research Foundation at the university. He and a colleague, Harold Varmus, were awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery that normal cells contain genes capable of becoming cancer genes. Copyright [C] 1995 by J. Michael Bishop. when country after country is cutting back state functions in favor of private initiative and civil society, this land on the eastern fringes of Europe seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

In truth, however, something very different may be under way, something we in the West misperceive at our peril. The basic facts are not in dispute. Every instance just cited seems to underscore the power of the Russian state. But they also lend themselves to an opposite conclusion: namely, that the Russian state is acting out of a sense of its own profound weakness.

Much of the bluster and posturing that we interpret as evidence of a resurgent Russian statism in fact suggests the inadequacy of the central institutions of the state. And strange to say, this weakness, more than the purported resurgence of the Russian state, poses serious dangers to the United States and other democracies. That is the great paradox of Russian life today.

To understand this paradox, we need to look more closely at the evidence, beginning with military and security matters. However ruthless the Russian army's effort to pulverize Grozny last winter, the campaign revealed a state of utter breakdown in the armed forces. Neither the commander in chief in Moscow nor the regimental leaders on the spot could develop a coherent strategy or have their orders carried out in the field. Coordination was nonexistent. None of this is surprising in an army that has had its procurement budget slashed by more than four-fifths and its troop level cut by more than half. But these occurrences are strikingly at odds with the aspirations of the Red Army a mere generation ago, or even those of the tsarist army of earlier times.

And what of the vaunted security system, the heir of the KGB? Every day, one seems to read of new powers that have been ceded to the security organs. Yet for all their power on paper, it was these fine fellows who brought about the Chechnya disaster by making bold promises to clean up the tiny region of the Caucasus in a tidy, covert campaign.

Nor does the national police force look any better. True, when our television shows Moscow's plainclothes officers shooting their way into a nest of gangsters, or when it is rumored that the police themselves are in collusion with criminals, it gives one pause.

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